Ad Report Card: Sprite’s Authenticity Grab

There’s nothing trickier to pull off in advertising—and in many other things, too—than authenticity. Still, advertisers try and try and try to “keep it real.” A particularly bold example of this in recent years has been the marketing of Sprite in a series of ads that made fun of other ads for their overblown promises. Forget all that clap-trap ascribing transforming power to the act of consumption (the ads, in effect, argued), and “Obey Your Thirst.” Sprite’s target was, and is, young people, and this campaign was shot through with tropes borrowed from the worlds of skateboard and hip-hop and so on.

But apparently, the tactic of mocking the inauthenticity of others has come to seem stale. Or perhaps forced. Or maybe just flat-out fake. In any case, Sprite has retooled its efforts, keeping the nearly 7-year-old “Obey Your Thirst” tag but unveiling a new set of TV spots that approach authenticity from a different angle. New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliot recently noted that the new campaign follows a year in which Sprite sales declined about 2 percent. You can see all six new spots on Sprite’s Web site.

The ads: In each commercial, a young person in some urban setting or other, recorded in an informal-looking, one-take video style, delivers a rapid-fire rap. This takes up most of the ad time, and since there’s no product identification at first, the viewer has to hang on to the end to figure out what’s being peddled. After that comes a quick word or phrase (“not too sweet,” “absolutely clear”) scrawled in white type on a black background, then the rapper is shown with a Sprite, and finally the “Obey your thirst” line closes it out.

In one ad, a young man identified as Jo Blac delivers a Schoolhouse Rockish cautionary tale, describing how he began “acting the fool” to get attention, and though he got it, he neglected his studies and was held back a grade. “I know now, dawg, that it was a turn for the worst.” (The type message that follows is, for some reason, “Tart.”) In another, a young woman, Crystal, calls out a would-be player for acting like something he isn’t in a rap that presumably doubles as commentary on inauthentic soft drinks. “What you’re bein’ is artificial,” she accuses. (“See through it” is the tag here.)

For real? The first time I saw one of these on television, I did in fact pause to see what it was advertising. One problem here—and it’s not exactly something Sprite is responsible for—is that there’s a vague sense that these ads could be for lots of things, and if the Nike or MTV logo popped up at the end, the spot would have made just as much sense. The commercials do stand out as “something different,” but they do so in a way that is somehow familiar. Sometimes it seems that every product advertised on television is posturing for credibility with youth. And so the bigger problem—and this one falls squarely on Sprite—is that a kid rapping against ambient noise is so obviously translated as “oh, here’s a new gimmick.”

A penchant for gimmickry, of course, is precisely the sort of thing that Sprite’s spots used to parody. Which illustrates the trouble with authenticity: It’s much easier to mock the inauthenticity of rivals than to convincingly be authentic. Sprite’s made an interesting go of the latter here—in the “See through it” spot in particular—but these raps, however real, end up sinking pretty quickly into the murk of calculation and choreography. I’ll give the spots a C-plus, but even that tepid grade comes with the caveat that a campaign like this one ought to quickly move onto something else. The more you see these ads, the more artificial they seem, and it’s hard not to agree with Crystal’s line “You might fool others, but you ain’t foolin’ me” a little more than Sprite wants you to.